I met Whitney when she was eight years old. Her mother Cissy, Dee Dee Warwick and myself sang background for Dionne Warwick for 10 years, almost. When we’d work around the area in New York or Connecticut doing shows, instead of staying in a hotel, I’d stay with Cissy. And it was, “Well, where am I going to sleep?” Nippy – that’s what we called her – would chime up, “Oh, you can sleep in my room, auntie!” She was always that little girl that wanted to help. I was pregnant at the time, and eating fruit was my passion. She’d go, “What do you want, what do you want?” There was a store on the corner where she’d run down the street and buy fruit for me – “OK, you all right? You want something else?” So charming from Day One.
I heard her a few years before she became famous because she sang background with her mother. She was around fifteen, maybe a little younger. It was Cissy’s show – she was performing there and she had Nippy on stage. And I never will forget hearing her solo for the first time. She sang “Tomorrow,” from West Side Story. She was so good. The audience loved her so much. It was, “OK, now, all right, go on back in the background – this is Mommy’s show. OK, go sit down now. Don’t be trying to take over.” But it was her moment. It was her time.
She was always a quiet child, and she was insecure about her talent. I think that most great singers have that little inhibition thing – you know, Elvis Presley was the same way, very introverted except for when he got on that stage. She’d go, “Was that good? Was that okay?” I said, “Girl, I’ll tell you!” Every time I heard her sing, I felt she was singing to me. Say you have four or five thousand people in the audience – they’re saying the same thing. There’s a lot of great singers, but there was something within her that they just don’t have.
I got to see her grow up into a fantastic, unbelievable entertainer. But I have no idea what it feels like to be that big a star. Not only do you have the world pulling on you, you have your family pulling on you, you have your friends pulling on you, people telling you what to do. There were times when I don’t think she wanted to sing anymore. But come on, you can’t! Do you know who you are? You can’t stop singing. And every time she went on stage, she gave her audience everything she had. That’s hard when your voice isn’t in the best shape. If you stay home, they’re mad at you, and if you try to come out and do it, they’re mad at you too. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
As told to Patrick Doyle